Environment Secretary Owen Paterson speaks at the Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband calls Cameron out on the Tory climate change deniers

By forcing Cameron to reaffirm his green credentials, the Labour leader skillfully drove a wedge between the PM and his party.

In response to recent events such as Typhoon Haiyan and the floods in Britain, David Cameron has affirmed his belief that man-made climate change is a threat that must be tackled. He said during his trip to Sri Lanka last year: "Scientists are giving us a very certain message. Even if you're less certain than the scientists it makes sense to act both in terms of trying to prevent and mitigate." But a significant number in Cameron's party, including, remarkably the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and the Energy minister Michael Fallon, take the reverse view, continuing to question the existence of anthropogenic climate change at all. Fallon has described climate change as "theology", while Paterson has declared: "People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries." (The 12 warmest years have all come in the last 15.)

At today's PMQs, Ed Miliband seized on this divide. After asking Cameron to confirm his position on climate change ("one of the most serious threats," replied the PM), he quoted Paterson and Fallon's sceptical comments and demanded to know whether Cameron was "happy to have climate change deniers in his government". In response, Cameron simply ignored the question and quipped that he was pleased Miliband's "new approach" included praising his stance on climate change. Miliband's well-delivered reply was that he had "gone from thinking it was a basic part of his credo to it being a matter of individual conscience". He ended: "If we’re to properly protect the British people against the threats they face, we cannot have doubt and confusion in his government on the issue of climate change. Doesn’t he need to rediscover the courage of his past convictions and tell his party to get real on climate change?”

To this, Cameron responded by listing the policies the coalition has introduced in this area, including "the Green Investment Bank, the cuts in carbon, the investment in renewables, the investment in nuclear", and declared: "he talks a good game but he actually didn't achieve anything when he was in office". Given that Miliband was the Energy and Climate Change Secretary who passed the Climate Change Act (mandating an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050) the last comment was particularly inappropriate and Cameron's other remarks show why this was a smart line of attack. By forcing the Cameron to brandish his green credentials, Miliband is driving a wedge between him and the climate change deniers in his party.  Few Tories will have enjoyed being reminded of the Lib Dem-friendly measures he listed. The PM's refusal to acknowledge the chasm between his views and those of many Tories also allows Miliband to present him as a "weak" leader, unable to enforce collective responsibility in his government.

Earlier in the session, Miliband challenged Cameron to correct his claim that flood defence spending had increased since 2010 after the UK Statistics Authority confirmed that it had fallen (in both real and nominal terms). In defiance of the nation's senior number crunchers, Cameron continued to insist that it had risen, but only by ignoring inflation and by including non-government spending (as Miliband noted). In a sure sign that he was losing the argument, Cameron resorted to the age-old charge that the opposition leader was dividing the country and had "misjudged the mood". It was a line of attack reminsicent of those deployed by Gordon Brown at his weakest moments during the recession. Cameron appeared both evasive and arrogant. The abiding impression was of a man whose words, on climate change and flood defences, cannot be trusted.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.